By Annie Sartor, Policy and Campaigns Coordinator
This week, the entire BCAction staff piled into a van and headed out for a daylong field trip to the Sierra Streams Institute (SSI) in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Nevada City, CA. SSI is a watershed monitoring, research, and restoration group that works to promote community stewardship and scientific knowledge of Deer Creek watershed. In particular, SSI is focused on studying the impact on stream health from nearly two centuries of gold mining.
What does Breast Cancer Action have in common with a group studying Deer Creek watershed contamination from gold mining? SSI researches the long-term impact to the environment of a rampant, unregulated precious metals extraction industry. Substitute natural gas resource mining methods (fracking) for gold mining and the importance and relevance of the work of SSI to BCAction, and to all concerned about improving women’s health in general, is glaringly obvious.
Over ten years of careful study of micro-organisms in the streams around former gold mines sites, SSI chemists, geologists, and researchers have demonstrated levels of mercury, arsenic and cadmium contaminants in the soil and water. The purpose of our visit was to learn from SSI’s research findings and better understand what their findings could teach us about the impact of fracking on our water and soil – and why we must not allow fracking for oil and gas in California or anywhere.
SSI is currently launching a study to examine potential links between residual arsenic and cadmium and breast cancer rates for women who live in the surrounding communities. Once complete, this study will contribute much needed information to help local residents – and those beyond – understand connections between environmental contamination and breast cancer rates.
Toxic mine waste from mining operations that occurred over 100 years ago is heaped in inconspicuous, foliage covered mounds that gently slope into back yards and residential neighborhoods. Toxic waste can be found in samples collected from the banks that run alongside idyllic streams, around local family swimming holes, and border public footpaths and trails. The SSI samples show that heavy metals are still leaching into streams, contaminating dust and dirt in parks and trails, and entering the food supply via bacteria and fish stocks. Pollutants used to extract gold from the rock faces and down mines that took place so many decades ago still reside there today. Furthermore, these pollutants remain as toxic today as they were when they were first used all those years ago: toxicity levels in these metals don’t degrade or diminish over time.
SSI’s scientists are working hard with limited resources to clean up the toxic hotspots around their community, and to provide critical research for activists like us. Their work is immensely valuable in demonstrating why we cannot rush to frack for oil and gas. Fracking will leave a lasting toxic legacy wherever it takes place similar to the one left in Northern California by the gold mining industry. We cannot allow history to repeat itself. SSI will connect the dots between their soil and water samples to environmental health harms left by gold mining. The chemicals used in racking will increase our risk of developing disease and sickness.
Albert Einstein is typically credited with saying that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” As the country moves towards another form of resource extraction, as the fracking industry grows and expands across the country, we must ask ourselves: will people and planet be impacted differently this time around? Sadly, based on fracking methods currently employed, the answer is they won’t be. Once chemicals enter the environment, they are very difficult, if not impossible, to remove and can impact human health for centuries; unless, of course, we take action to stop the damage from happening in the first place.